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Testimony of John Sifton

Asia Advocacy Director

Human Rights Watch

Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission | Hearing of April 4, 2014

“The Plight of Religious Minorities in India”


Mr. Chairman, Committee members: 

Thank you for inviting me to testify today at this well-timed hearing. National elections in India will begin later this month, and critical issues relating to the protection of minority rights will confront the government coming into office in May 2014.

Violence between Communities

As you know, India—like many other countries in the world—is home to a diverse set of religious and ethnic groups. On most days and in most places, members of these diverse groups enjoy their basic civil and political rights, and freedom to pursue their beliefs.

But unfortunately, that is not always the case. Tensions do exist, and for varying reasons, sometimes these tensions devolve into violence. Tensions may be aggravated by struggles over access to limited resources, particularly land, or by political rivalries. Sometimes localized incidents—street fights, local crime—can escalate.

In the run-up to this year’s elections in India, it appears that tensions have escalated between Hindu and Muslim communities, leading to a 30 percent increase in incidents of communal violence as compared to 2012. The central government’s Ministry of Home Affairs reported 823 incidents of communal violence in 2013, in which 133 people died and over 2,000 were injured.

One of the worst such incidents involved mass violence in September 2013 in Muzaffarnagar district in Uttar Pradesh, events in which at least 60 people died. The events began with an altercation on September 7, which led to the deaths of two Hindus and a Muslim. Inflammatory speeches by right-wing Hindu leaders and allied groups led to three days of violence, which spread to neighboring districts and only ended after a curfew was imposed and the Indian army was deployed to restore law and order. In addition to the 60 people killed, at least six cases of gang rape and sexual violence were reported. Muslim citizens from more than 150 villages were compelled to flee their homes, and even today, thousands of them remain displaced, fearful to return. The state government claimed in December that 5,000 people were then still displaced, but local aid groups have said the number is more than five times that, about 27,000 people.

In the aftermath of this violence, the state government failed to provide adequate aid to the displaced, and have in fact forcibly closed down some of the camps set up for the displaced, many of whom have now relocated to various villages and are living in tents on other people’s property, or on scraps of otherwise unused land.

One of my colleagues visited some of the remaining camps in January, and as we then reported at the time, she found displaced Muslims living in deplorable conditions, and facing shockingly high rates of childhood mortality. According to one government commission, as of January at least 34 children had died in camps since September. In January we released a statement noting that the government had no real rehabilitation or safe return policy for the displaced, and were only offering compensation to families after they signed affidavits promising not to return to their villages, live in a relief camp, or occupy government land.

This March, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that the Uttar Pradesh state government had been negligent during the September 2013 violence, by not taking necessary steps to stem the rising violence. The court then ordered the government to undertake rigorous efforts to investigate and prosecute persons involved in the violence.

Government failures to address communal violence extend beyond religious minorities and non-Hindus. The government has also failed to ensure the safe return of Hindus from Jammu and Kashmir state displaced in the 1990s after being targeted by militant groups.

Impunity in Communal Violence Cases

Threats of communal violence increase when local forces wait for orders before acting, or worse, are instructed not to act. These problems are compounded when responsible officials are not held accountable after the fact.

India has suffered three major spates of communal violence in recent history: first, the 1984 attacks on Sikhs in Delhi following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, during the uprising by separatist Sikh groups in Punjab; second, the 1992-93 communal violence in Mumbai following the demolition of the Babri Mosque; and third, the 2002 violence against Muslims in Gujarat state after a mob attack on a train killed 59 Hindu activists. Thousands of people were killed in each of these attacks.

In all of these cases above, accountability has proved elusive. Indian authorities have all too often failed to properly investigate and prosecute suspects after major spates of violence, even after reports by independent inquiries implicating officials and members of law enforcement.

The pattern of impunity continues to the present day. There was, for instance, the violence that occurred in Orissa in 2008 after a Hindu leader there was assassinated, allegedly by Maoists. After members of an extremist Hindu group incited violence against the area’s Christian population, nearly 40 Christians were killed, thousands of homes were burned, and over 10,000 were displaced. Although many perpetrators were later prosecuted, many were given only minor punishments, such as fines.

The recurring theme in the aftermath of all these tragic events is impunity. When state authorities fail to investigate incidents properly, courts or government human rights commissions step in, document potential complicity, and recommend or order state authorities to redouble efforts to hold people responsible. The results are often anemic—only partial, incomplete justice at best.

For many years after the violence in Gujarat, the state government failed to press forward with any comprehensive investigations. Prosecutions began only after extensive pressure from activists and victim families, and interventions by India’s Supreme Court and the National Human Rights Commission. An investigation ordered by the Supreme Court to look into Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the violence found no prosecutable evidence of his direct complicity—a conclusion that officials from his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are now using to suggest that he has received a “clean-chit” from the courts. There are, however, still current legal processes underway in Indian courts, initiated by Indian activists and victim families seeking accountability. And independent of the question of Modi’s personal complicity in the violence, there are issues of the culpability of the state government in failing to protect its Muslim citizens.

Outside of India, the lack of accountability for repeated instances of serious violence has led to condemnations and even travel restrictions for alleged perpetrators of abuses. As the committee is aware, in March 2005 Chief Minister Modi applied for a diplomatic visa to visit the United States. Because of allegations regarding his complicity in the 2002 Gujarat violence, the United States denied his application and revoked an earlier visitor visa.

Modi is now of course a top candidate to be India’s next prime minister, and his BJP party leads in several polls. Several countries that had previously suspended meetings with Modi because of the 2002 allegations have since met with him, including then-US Ambassador Nancy Powell, who met with him this February.

We believe that it is appropriate for the United States to continue to press for comprehensive accountability for the 2002 events in Gujarat, and press for accountability in other serious cases mentioned today.

Arbitrary Arrests of Muslims in Terrorism Cases

Many Muslim men have been arbitrarily detained, interrogated, and tortured after bombing attacks, especially between 2006 and 2008. (Later investigations found that members of Hindu extremist groups were actually responsible for some of these attacks.) Authorities have also used draconian and abusive laws, including the Sedition Law and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, to target Muslims.

Indian human rights groups have repeatedly expressed concerns over profiling of Muslims and the use of prolonged detention. In September 2013, after growing concerns were raised in parliament, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde called on all state governments to ensure that Muslims are not subjected to arbitrary arrests on suspicions of terrorism.

Not only do Muslims frequently fear arbitrary arrest, they can also fear for their lives. In July 2013, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed charges against senior Gujarat police and intelligence officials for the extrajudicial killing of four Muslims, including a 19-year-old woman. The police had initially claimed that the four, who were suspected of conspiring to assassinate Chief Minister Modi, were intercepted and killed in an exchange of gunfire. A later independent investigation found that the four were taken into custody and later executed by members of the Gujarat police. Some of the policemen are now being investigated in other cases of extrajudicial killings. In September, D.G. Vanzara, a senior official arrested along with 31 others from the Gujarat police for their alleged role in extrajudicial killings, wrote a letter claiming the killings took place while they were implementing Gujarat government policy.

Impunity for Military Forces

The Indian armed forces continue to commit human rights violations in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state, and in the northeastern states that are home to many ethnic minority groups.

Human rights groups have long documented serious abuses by members of the Indian military, including torture, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances. But members of the military are rarely investigated or prosecuted. Indian military personal are effectively shielded from prosecution for incidents in Jammu and Kashmir and the northeast under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which provides military personnel immunity from prosecution when deployed in areas under emergency rule. Despite repeated domestic and international condemnations calling for repeal of the law, it remains in force, due largely to military opposition.


The United States has for many years expressed concern over violence against minorities in India. It is important that the United States reinforce the message after a new government is elected. Human Rights Watch continues to urge the Obama administration to press India to:

  • Enact a stronger law to prevent communal violence. A draft Prevention of Communal Violence Bill is floundering because some political parties want to dilute its provisions.
  • Strengthen existing human rights commissions such as the National Commission for Minorities and the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, which monitor the rights of religious minorities, Dalits, and tribal groups. In some cases, the effectiveness of these commissions has been compromised after the government has staffed them with non-expert, political appointees.
  • Repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.
  • Discipline or prosecute as appropriate members of the security forces, regardless of rank, who unjustifiably fail to stop violence or do not act impartially during events of communal violence.
  • Enact a strong law against torture that conforms with the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. (A pending Prevention of Torture bill is under consideration in India’s parliament.)

Thank you for inviting me to testify today.

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